Francis Jeffrey, a Scottish critic, born in Edinburgh, Oct. 23, 1773, died at Craigcrook, Jan. 26, 1850. He was the eldest son of a depute clerk in the court of session, and was educated at Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Oxford. At Glasgow he distinguished himself as one of the most acute and fluent speakers, and formed the habit of accompanying all his studies by collateral composition. He took little pleasure in his residence at Oxford, and after one session returned to Edinburgh, and attended the law classes at the university. At the same time he was busy with literature and poetry, and was admitted, Dec. 11, 1792, into the speculative society, in which for nearly ten years he trained his powers of speaking and writing, having among his competitors Walter Scott, Lord Henry Petty (marquis of Lansdowne), Henry Brougham, Francis Horner, John A. Murray, James Moncrieff, and Henry Cockburn. He was admitted to practice Dec. 16, 1794, but suffered under the disadvantages of being as devoted to literature as to law, and of having proclaimed himself a whig, while the effect of the revolutionary excesses of France not only debarred Scottish whigs from hope of preferment, but almost placed them under a social ban.
In 1801 his professional income had amounted in no one year to £100. In that year he married, with "all the recommendations of poverty," and took up his residence in a third story in Buccleugh place. There several of his young whig associates, prominent among whom were Sydney Smith, Brougham, and Horner, were wont to visit him, and it was at these social meetings that the "Edinburgh Review " was suggested and planned. The first number appeared Oct. 10, 1802, containing besides others seven articles by Sydney Smith, four by Horner, four by Brougham, and five by Jeffrey. Its learning, talent, spirit, and eloquence caused it to be nailed at once by the liberal party as the dawn of a brighter day, and by thoughtful men, indifferent to party, as an organ of the highest order for able and fearless discussion of every matter worthy of inquiry. A first and a second impression of 750 copies were rapidly exhausted; at the issue of the third number the regular sale was 2,500 copies, and in 1813 it exceeded 12,000. Jeffrey became its official editor with the fourth number, and continued to edit it for 26 years, during which period he was its most popular and effective contributor; and he wrote for it at intervals till near the time of his death.
The whole number of his contributions is 200, of which 79 were selected for republication (2d ed., 3 vols., London, 1846; 1 vol., 1853). In the larger part of them he appears as literary critic, but several are devoted to metaphysics and to politics. The thoroughness and ability with which he analyzed literary productions, pointed out their beauties, and chastised their defects, was unprecedented in periodicals. His attack on the "Odes and Epistles" of Moore (1806) led to a harmless duel with Moore, and came near causing one between Moore and Byron. Against Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge he waged a long war, which he subsequently admitted to be unjustifiable. Yet even in his harshest critiques it was his custom to select the finest passages for quotation. In 1813, after having been a widower eight years, he visited New York to marry Charlotte Wilkes, a grandniece of the celebrated politician John Wilkes. In 1815 he took up his residence at Craigcrook, two miles from Edinburgh, where he passed his summers until the year of his death. His reputation at the bar increased with his success as a reviewer.
He rose to the highest eminence as a pleader, was elected in 1821 lord rector of the university of Glasgow, and in 1829 dean of the faculty of advocates, was appointed lord advocate in 1830, entered the house of commons in 1831, and was elevated to the Scottish bench in 1834. He took part in the reform debates in parliament, but did not maintain there the reputation for eloquence which he enjoyed at the bar. As a judge he was a model of courtesy and patience, and remarkable for the rapidity of his decisions and the vivacity and clearness of his statements. He was most highly esteemed in private life, and as a brilliant converse, abounding in wit, fancy, and amiability. His biography was written by Lord Cockburn, with a selection from his correspondence (Edinburgh, 1852).